Personal life of Leonardo da Vinci  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
personal life, Renaissance homosexuality

Description and analysis of Leonardo's character, personal desires and intimate behaviour has been based upon a number of sources: records concerning him, his biographies, his own written journals, his paintings, his drawings, his associates and commentaries that were made concerning him by contemporaries. Freud's paper "Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood" argued that Leonardo's homosexuality was latent: that he did not act on his desires.


Personal relationships

Leonardo's sexuality

Little is known about Leonardo's sexuality, as, although he left hundreds of pages of writing, very little of it is personal in nature. He left no letters, poetry or diary that indicate any romantic interest. He never married and it cannot be stated with certainty that he had a sexually intimate relationship with any person, male or female. One of the few references that Leonardo made to sexuality in his notebooks states: "The act of procreation and anything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions." (Freud, Gesammelte Werke). This statement has been the subject of various extrapolations and interpretations in attempts to gain a picture of his sexuality.

The only historical document concerning Leonardo's sexual life is an accusation of sodomy made in 1476, showing that in 1476, while in the workshop of Verrocchio, Leonardo (along with two others) was accused anonymously of sodomy with a male model and prostitute, Jacopo Saltarelli. After two months he was acquitted due to a lack of evidence. Sodomy was theoretically an extremely serious offense, carrying the death penalty, but its very seriousness made it equally difficult to prove. It was also an offence for which punishment was very seldom handed down in contemporary Florence, where homosexuality was sufficiently widespread and tolerated to make the word Florenzer (Florentine) a slang word for homosexual in Germany. False denunciations were quite common at that time especially via anonymous reports by one's enemies. Such may have been the case here. In his long career after leaving Florence, no further such charges were laid against Leonardo.

Elizabeth Abbott, in her History of Celibacy, contends that although Leonardo was probably gay, the trauma of the sodomy case converted him to celibacy for the rest of his life. A similar view of a homosexually oriented but chaste Leonardo appears in a famous 1910 paper by Sigmund Freud, Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, which analysed a memory Leonardo described of having been attacked as a baby by a bird of prey that opened his mouth and "stuck me with the tail inside my lips again and again." Freud claimed the symbolism was clearly phallic, but argued that Leonardo's homosexuality was latent: that he did not act on his desires. Leonardo's writings and notebooks show evidence of a struggle with sexuality: in a famous passage from the Notebooks Leonardo says: "The act of procreation and anything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions". Freud's work, and other, more recent attempts to psychoanalyse Leonardo, are discussed at length in Bradley Collins's book Leonardo, Psychoanalysis and Art History.

The adult Leonardo had few close relationships with women and never married; his numerous anatomical sketches include only two detailed works on female reproductive organs, one of them uncharacteristically distorted. But David M. Friedman argues that this is not evidence of a loss of sexuality, so much as a lack of interest in women. He argues that Leonardo's notebooks show a preoccupation with men and with sexuality uninterrupted by the trial and agrees with art historian Kenneth Clark that Leonardo never became sexless.

Serge Bramly too notes that "the fact that Leonardo warns against lustfulness certainly need not mean that he himself was chaste." Michael White, in Leonardo: The First Scientist says it is likely that the trial simply made Leonardo cautious and defensive about his personal relationships and sexuality, but did not dissuade him from intimate relationships with men: "there is little doubt that Leonardo remained a practising homosexual."

Records show that, after the trial, Leonardo had two long-lasting associations with young men. These were his pupils Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, nicknamed Salai or Il Salaino ("The Little Unclean One" i.e., the devil), who entered his household in 1490 at the age of 10, and Count Francesco Melzi, the son of a Milan aristocrat who became apprenticed to Leonardo in 1506. Other relationships, with an unknown man named Fioravante di Domenico and a young falconer, Bernardo di Simone, are suggested in Michael White's biography, but the Salai and Melzi relationships were the longest lasting. Vasari describes Salai as "a graceful and beautiful youth with fine curly hair," and his name appears (crossed out) on the back of an erotic drawing (ca. 1513) by the artist, The Incarnate Angel; rediscovered in 1991 in a German collection, it is one of the number of erotic drawings of Salai (and others?) by Leonardo once in the British Royal Collection, and is possibly a humorous take on his St. John the Baptist. The "Little Devil" lived up to his nickname: a year after his entering the household Leonardo made a list of the boy’s misdemeanours, calling him "a thief, a liar, stubborn, and a glutton." But despite Salai's thievery and general delinquency - he made off with money and valuables on at least five occasions, spent a fortune on apparel, including twenty-four pairs of shoes, and eventually died in a duel - he remained Leonardo's companion, servant, and assistant for thirty years, and at Leonardo's death he was bequeathed the Mona Lisa, a valuable piece even then, valued in Salai's own will at the equivalent of £200,000.

Twenty years later the count Melzi was a far more sedate, although perhaps less exciting, companion for the older Leonardo. In a letter Melzi described the closeness of their relationship as sviscerato et ardentissimo amore ("deeply felt and most ardent love"), and it was he, rather than Salai, who accompanied Leonardo in his final days in France. Melzi subsequently played an important role as the guardian of Leonardo's notebooks, preparing them for publication in the form enjoined by his master. Nevertheless, although it was Melzi who was with Leonardo at his deathbed, one of the two paintings which Leonardo kept with him in his last days was the portrait of Salai as John the Baptist, smiling enigmatically, one finger raised and pointing towards Heaven.

Patrons, friends and colleagues

Leonardo Da Vinci had a number of powerful patrons, including the King of France. He had, over the years, a large number of followers and pupils. With two of these in particular, Salai and Melzi, he maintained close and passionate relationships.


Giorgio Vasari says of the young Leonardo "He would have been very proficient in his early lessons, if he had not been so volatile and flexible; for he was always setting himself to learn a multitude of things, most of which were shortly abandoned. When he began the study of arithmetic, he made, within a few months, such remarkable progress that he could baffle his master with the questions and problems that he raised....All the time, through all his other enterprises, Leonardo never ceased drawing..."

Leonardo's father, Ser Piero, realising that his son's talents were extraordinary, took some of his drawings to show his friend, Andrea del Verrocchio, who ran one of the largest artists' workshops in Florence. Leonardo was accepted for apprenticeship and "soon proved himself a first class geometrician". Vasari says that during his youth Leonardo made a number of clay heads of smiling women and children from which casts were still being made and sold by the workshop some 80 years later. Among his earliest significant known paintings are an Annunciation in the Uffizi, the angel that he painted as a collaboration with Verrocchio in the Baptism of Christ, and a small predella of the Annunciation to go beneath an altarpiece by Lorenzo di Credi. The little predella picture is probably the earliest.


Leonardo da vinci was a man with great personal appeal, kindness and generosity and was generally well-loved by his contemporaries.

According to Vasari "Leonardo's disposition was so lovable that he commanded everyone's affection". He was "a sparkling conversationalist" who charmed Ludovico il Moro with his wit. Vasari sums him up by saying "In appearance he was striking and handsome, and his magnificent presence brought comfort to the most troubled soul; he was so persuasive that he could bend other people to his will. He was physically so strong that he could withstand violence and with his right hand he could bend the ring of an iron door knocker or a horseshoe as if they were lead. He was so generous that he fed all his friends, rich or poor.... Through his birth Florence received a very great gift, and through his death it sustained an incalculable loss."

Some of Leonardo's personal wisdom is to be found in a series of fables that he wrote. A prevalent theme is the mistake of placing too high esteem upon one's self, and the benefits to be gained through awareness, humility and endeavour.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Personal life of Leonardo da Vinci" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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